More so than any other person in my mother’s extended family, Julia was a person who was truly loved. She helped to raise her mother’s children, then her own children, her many nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Everyone from my mother’s family thinks of her as a caregiver and an essential part of their upbringing. She was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, and in January 1997 we met so that I might collect some of her famous ghost stories.
Julia was born in 1911 on a hacienda in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico, the fourth child and second girl of eleven. Fleeing the Mexican revolution her family settled in Austin, Texas, in 1918. Julia never attended school, but instead as one of the older children was in charge of the house and it was here that her skills as a cook and storyteller emerged.
Many in my family would single out her tales of the supernatural as her most memorable stories. I think Halloween makes for a fine occasion to share them and I hope you enjoy!
The first two take place when the family lived on a dairy near Deep Eddy in the 1920s, this house and all the land around it was haunted. Julia attributed these unexplained events to the remains of old barracks built by the soldiers of General Santa Anna. The second two stories take place in a haunted house on East 6th Street that the family lived in from the 1940s until sometime in the 1950s.
The Headless Man
So, one day me and my sister Maggie went out. You know, the outhouse is what, half block, back, way up top near the pasture.
So we turn on the lantern to go out in the middle of the night, between 10 and 11 is when we go to bed.
My mother had a little baby, Leonarda. Leonadita. And she was sick and my mother, she was rocking in the chair because she never stopped crying. Cry and cry and cry.
And we finished clean the kitchen, me and my sister, and we say, “Let’s go out.”
And I had the lantern. And just behind us was a little tree. And we had a goat there. Because the baby milk, it drank goat milk.
And I saw the goat because, you know, the light flashed her, and I saw the goat standin’ up and go round and go round.
And then I turned around and I see a man. With black suit, white shirt, but no head.
And I scream! And I say, “Mama there’s a man there!”
And my sister Maggie, she went in and close the door. And lock the door. And it don’t let me in. And I stand. I freeze.
And Mama stand up and “Go Maggie, and open the door.”
And I can’t talk I was so frightened. And my mother, “What’s wrong?” And I can’t tell ’em. I can’t tell ’em cause I can’t talk!
When finally, you know, my mother prayed for me. Finally I talk. And she say, “What happened?”
I say, “Its a man standing back where the goat is, with a black suit, white shirt but no head.”
And my daddy say, “Aaagghh!” He got the rifle and went out. And look at nothing. The goat was calm. Chewing, chewing, chewing.
And do you know? I saw the man walking, cause I was standin’ like that and he walking where that old foundation. Is the place where the chimney, you know. And he get there. Disappear!
Mm-hmm. Yes. And so my daddy went around, don’t see nothing. And the goat was lay down. Chewing. Chewing.
And he say, “No, is your imagination.” I say, “No! I saw it! I seen the man, I seen the man! And he walkin’, he out there and he disappear.”
Well, and that thing pass.
Oh. And ooh, we had lots of things.
Until my daddy tell Mr. Guildard, “We don’t live there, because they don’t ever sleep.”
And night you could hear on the roof that something fell on the roof!
(slaps her hand on the table)
And roll down. And my daddy go out. Nothing. Real quiet. Nothing.
And my daddy say, “We cannot live no more there! They don’t let us sleep.”
And from the dairy we can see, you can see a little flames, green, go like this.
(makes flickering motions with her fingers)
Go like this. Because they say, you know, Santa Anna bury money or something.
Well one day me and Arto, Arto was I think three years old, and we went to play there. And we dig. Soft, soft! The dirt was soft. And we started to dig and dig and dig.
And we find, we find so many little tin circles. Like that, we got a bunch!
And we come and tell to my mother. And, “Don’t dig there. Go and put it up, and fill up that gap.”
So we do that. And then my daddy talked to Mr. Cisneros. And he say, “Is money in there. Let’s go dig.” And he went and dig. And dig and dig. But the ground is hard, when we dig it was soft.
And then, another friend to my daddy say, “Why don’t you leave the things that she find and maybe they turn into money.”
And then we tried to go dig again. It was hard like a rock. We could dig no more.
Is when my daddy tell to Mr. Guildard, “We don’t need to live there no more.” Because we see so many things in there and hear things and everything.
So they moved us to the big house, they move there. Until we move to Del Valle.
And, do you know, before that when we still there, my sister Trinny, we work in a donut shop. And we close at nine o’clock, I think.
We lock up and, and the corner of, well now its 35th, at the time we called East Avenue.
And right on the corner there is a little stand, they sell tacos. Well, and Trinny say, “Let’s go get some tacos, so we can go drink coffee with the tacos.”
“Okay.” We went and bring the taco. And we went home. And I tell Trinny, “Set the coffee while I go to the bathroom.”
So I went to the bathroom and then she say, “Aaaaahh!”
I say, “What’s wrong?”
“Two dogs come in!”
“They went to the other room.”
Because we had the bed there, to sit there, me and her, and then on the dining room. I say, “Trinny you makin’ it.”
“No I see two dogs. One brown and one black.”
Well we turn off the light. And we went and looked with the flashlight under the bed, under the things. Nothing.
Well, let’s sit down and eat the tacos and coffee. We were sit down when…
(raps knuckles on the table for the sound of dog’s nails)
The two little dogs come in running! And go out. And I say, “Well!” One black and one brown.
You see the dogs, you know how many dogs that have the little feet? [dachshunds]
And you know they have a screen door. How can they go in? We don’t see nothing, you know, and the back is just sand. And next morning, when I wake up, I went out. And I say, “This is dogs. I can see tracks.” Nothing.
That’s a ghost house!
The back porch, it was a big sleeping porch and right on, it have two steps.
The curandero come to our house. We sit all the way round and we start to, you know, put the hand like that. And he start to pray. And then he say, “Here in this house something is buring there, by the steps.”
Because, you know, Luisa, Augustine’s [3rd] wife, she come and go outside. She miss the apron [it had disappeared off the clothesline].
And my mother, “I don’t know what, she missed it maybe. Something.” And she said, “Now Frank and Augustine. Go and dig under the steps. Pick up the step up, and dig.”
But it had to be at night. At 12 o’clock in the night. And they dig back there, it was a tin can. And they bring it to the table cause we saw it. It was full of black wax. She cut the can with the scissors and all the little, you know, little dolls make it out, out of the material of the apron what Luisa lose it.
And do you know, everybody we have somethin’ wrong. I think he say in my stomache. So what we have, the dolls have the pin in there.
So he take care of pullin all them parts and put them again in the can. And then he told Frank and my daddy to go, cross the bridge, the Montopolis bridge. And he say when they go in the middle of the bridge just drop it, on the water. With the scissors and everything.
And you know, cause Augustine when Bertha die, he got married with Prado. He say that lady is the one that do all that thing. We she pay somebody to do it. She pay the witch to do all that.
You know how the house was two rooms here. And we sleep in this room and one night. I can feel that somebody digging. You know, I can hear digging. And we, I stand up and I run to my daddy. I tell him, “Somebody’s digging in the back.”
So he went took flashlight, he didn’t see nothing. “Naw, maybe you dreaming.” But I can hear. You know somebody dig, you can hear. I hear.
That day when that man get all this, he say, “That’s when you hear all that.” Everybody was well. No pain, nothing. Because he took all the pins out the dolls that she made.
I’ve used this last story in many magic and ritual lectures, and occasionally I will have a student become very disturbed by it. There is a lot of profound symbolism going on.
Present throughout these storytelling sessions was my grandmother Pauline. She was there to elaborate and explain, jog Julia’s memory, and translate Spanish. About this last story she explained that Augustine had caught his second wife, Francis Prado, in the act of cheating on him, he “knocked her around” as she said, and that was the end of the marriage. Prado was seeking revenge when she hired a witch to place this curse.
Later in the interview Julia would mention that at the time, in their neighborhood, she knew of “a black woman” who was familiar with Voodoo. This woman had warned her that the appearance of the ghost dogs was a omen that something was buried at the house. A very intriguing natural symbol! Dogs like to dig and bury things, even ghost dogs.
Creating and telling a story is a time consuming process, so it follows that if a person is going to commit enough of themselves to a project, such as the creation of a new story, they would have a reason to do so. The reason for bringing a story into being is commonly referred to as the author’s intent. What does Julia intend by telling these stories? What purpose do they serve?
I think to answer this question properly we must consider the setting of where Julia performed these stories, the kitchen. The audience would have been the children that were constantly in Julia’s care. To pacify the children while they wait for dinner to be done Julia would tell all the stories she knew, fairy tales like Cinderella were standard.
But by telling stories that were already a part of her, a part of her history, Julia made herself a part of the work she engages in. This makes the otherwise endless task of being a domestic more special. From one point of view the purposes of her stories are to entertain, which they do wonderfully. But on a deeper level these stories are what made Julia into the special person she was for her family. The purpose of Julia’s stories are that they give her a purpose. And like her delicious tamales they brought her great renown.